New Delhi, India
October 1, 2011
The restaurant is on the first floor (beware: only a staircase leads up; there’s no elevator or escalator). Inside, a large bar counter faces the doorway. The rest of the hall is cream-painted, with a row of beautifully carved traditional South Indian wooden pillars. More examples of traditional wooden carving hang in the form of panels on the wall, and a very large plate glass window looks out onto the street below. The music is an interesting fusion of traditional Carnatic and something that sounded part jazz-part rock-part I don’t know what. Fortunately, it wasn’t terribly loud, so we could ignore it most of the time.
We were seated, water poured for us and menus handed out within a minute of entering the restaurant. The menu is what makes Spice Water Trail the experience it is – it sounds absolutely fascinating. Each dish is neatly explained in non-flowery language, and evokes the fabulous flavours of the South: coconut milk and grated coconut; kokum (a sour fruit also called ‘fish tamarind’, because it’s traditionally used to flavour fish curries); chillies; curry leaves and mustard seeds; an awesome range of seafood. After much deliberation, we settled on a starter and a main course that we could share, with dessert to follow. We placed our order – along with fresh lemonade to sip – and sat back to await our meal.
In a couple of minutes our drinks arrived, and with them came some complimentary nibbles: lightly fried, unspiced papads (poppadums) and a selection of four chutneys. Interestingly, the waiter paused long enough to explain to us which chutney was what (this has never happened to me before, and I was pleasantly surprised): the green one was coriander (obviously, with a healthy dose of hot green chilli ground into it, from the taste of it); the white one was the ubiquitous mild coconut chutney; the red one was the equally common tomato chutney; and the yellow one was an unusual raw mango chutney, tart and slightly hot, but also delicious.
We were still digging into the papads and chutneys when our starter arrived. We’d asked the waiter for a recommendation: a fish dish that wasn’t too spicy, and was made of boneless fish (my husband can’t handle those needle-like bones). What the waiter suggested wasn’t even on the menu, but it sounded a bit like ‘sole kolivaadi’. One taste of the fish, and I was swearing I’d kill for this. It was heavenly – the fish had been marinated in a very light but spicy (and not chilli hot) batter, deep-fried to a gorgeous golden brown crisp, and brought to the table piping hot, with thinly sliced raw onion and wedges of lime on the side. Fantastic!
For the main course, we’d dithered long and hard between a wide variety of fabulous-sounding dishes: meats, chicken, seafood and vegetarian, before settling on two dishes: prawns with raw mango, and pumpkin ellisseri. We’d asked the waiter for what would best accompany these, and he’d recommended either appams or Malabar parottas. The latter, we know, are rich – they are layered, flaky flatbreads made with generous amounts of ghee or oil, and though delicious, can be heavy. Appams are fluffy risp rice-flour pancakes that are soft in the centre, crisp around the sides and totally addictive – so appams it was, and these were good, perfect for mopping up the curries that we’d ordered. The ‘raw mango’ component of the prawn curry was not really apparent; instead, what we were served was a creamy greeny-brown curry of coconut milk and other mild Southern spices, with fat prawns in the gravy. The pumpkin ellisseri was a sort of pumpkin mash, but with generous doses of curry leaves, mustard seeds, a tempering of fried lentils, and a hint of sour tamarind added. Both were out of this world, so good that we ended up ordering more appams.
Of course, having eaten such a wonderful meal, we decided we had to have dessert as well. My husband ordered a parippu payasam – lentils cooked with coconut milk and jaggery (raw sugar) – and I asked for a pineapple halva, crushed pineapple cooked with semolina, nuts and raisins, and a dash of coconut milk. We made it a point to check whether the portion size would be good for one person, or if we were ordering too much. We were assured that it would be right for one person.
That was where Spice Water Trail goofed up. The dessert portion sizes are massive; each dessert is enough for at least two people. And, with the vast amounts of sugar that seemed to have gone into each of the dishes, I’d think even three people would’ve been able to comfortably eat what was served up as one portion. Both the payasam and the halva were just too sweet, too warm (well, hot, actually), and too much. My halva, since it was made of pineapple, ended up reminding me more of pineapple jam than anything else.
Our bill came to just over Rs 2,000, inclusive of taxes and service charges. Somewhat expensive, but given the food quality, understandable. The only thing I’d change about this place is the dessert menu. The desserts – or at least what we had – could’ve done with a lot less sugar.
Otherwise? A place not to be missed.
From journal Getting Your Spice Fix in Delhi